By the time Parthiv Patel made his Ranji Trophy debut in November 2004, he had already played 44 first-class games, including 19 Test matches.
By the time Patel made his Ranji Trophy debut, he had led India at an Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand, helped save a Test match in England, gone to a World Cup in South Africa, scored Test fifties in Australia and Pakistan, one of them at the top of the order to set up a series-clinching victory. By this time, he had also already gone from looking like the most naturally gifted of wicketkeepers to one utterly short in confidence and dropped from the national team.
All this had happened and he wasn’t even 20.
Patel, now 35, has brought a most unusual career to an end, and it’s only appropriate that we look back at that beginning and wonder.
We can wonder firstly about all the directions that career didn’t take; all those early parallels with other teenage prodigies, but ultimately this wasn’t a career like L Sivaramakrishnan’s, or Maninder Singh’s. Indian cricket was different in Patel’s time, and Patel was different too, perhaps, better cushioned to absorb the shocks of all that early success and failure.
We can also wonder about how Patel’s career might have panned out had it followed a more conventional trajectory. Think about the workload of a Test-match wicketkeeper, physical and mental, and think about the fact that he came to bear that workload at a younger age than anyone before him or since. There was an old-school purity about his glovework in his early days, all soft hands and gliding feet, but you can see why it began fraying at the edges when you consider that he had only played nine first-class games before his Test debut.
All the same, it was easy to see why the selectors picked him so young. There was the keeping promise, but also the batting smarts that allowed him to turn a fairly small set of tools – his scoring shots at that stage seemed limited to the cut, the pull, the glide to third man and the clip off his legs – into a Test average of 31.85 by the time he was dropped in October 2004. It doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was the second-highest average, behind Budhi Kunderan’s 33.24, for any specialist wicketkeeper who had played at least 10 Tests for India.
There was clearly something to Patel’s game, and India needed it. In the two-and-a-half years between the turn of the century and Patel’s debut, they had cycled through Nayan Mongia, MSK Prasad, Saba Karim, Vijay Dahiya, Sameer Dighe, Deep Dasgupta and Ajay Ratra, and when Patel arrived it felt like they had found – in every sense of the term – a keeper.
That he wasn’t was perhaps partly because he was thrown into the deep end far too early, but also because India sailed from the shallows of the early 2000s to the depths of having, at one point, all of MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik, Patel and Wriddhiman Saha in contention for the keeper’s role, with Rishabh Pant soon to appear on the horizon.
It’s a credit to Patel’s professionalism and love for the game that he kept himself in that frame for all those years, and that he could come back into the Test side in 2016, at short notice, open the batting, and score 42, 67* and 71 against England. He even got to go back to Australia in 2018-19 as a reserve wicketkeeper and repeat to Austin Waugh what his father Steve had told him when he’d first toured the country in 2003-04: “Son, you were in nappies when I made my Test debut.”
In all the years away from India’s squads, Patel became a hugely respected figure in domestic cricket, scoring match-winning hundreds for Gujarat in the finals of the Vijay Hazare (50-over) Trophy and the Ranji Trophy, the latter in a record chase, and finishing with over 11,000 first-class runs. He was an IPL regular too, and if his presence at the top of the order for as many as six franchises raised numerous eyebrows over the years, consider this: of the 40 batsmen who have scored at least 200 runs in the powerplay since the 2017 IPL season, Patel’s strike rate of 146.08 is the fourth-best overall and the best among Indian batsmen.
There were limitations beyond the powerplay, of course, but those numbers were yet more evidence of the qualities out of which Patel has forged a most rewarding career: the same drive and intelligence that had allowed him, at 19, to take on Shoaib Akhtar, the new ball and a lively Rawalpindi track with a sense of cherubic equanimity.
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